HOLLYWOOD — As celebrities shared their memories of Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner, who died on Wednesday aged 91, some of the most fervent elegies came from the Playboy “playmates” who lived in his famous — or infamous — mansion.
“Hef changed my life,” Kendra Wilkinson, a former girlfriend who lived with him in his later years, said.
“He made me the person I am today. I couldn’t be more thankful for our friendship and our time together. I will miss him so much but he will be in my heart forever.”
The Hefner in these remembrances — a naughty, avuncular mentor — was strikingly different from the man who exploded on to the publishing scene in 1953.
The men’s magazine he founded was the first that sought to take nude photographs mainstream and the uproar from readers, censors, critics and celebrants was deafening.
At the centre of the roar was Hefner himself. He fought free-speech battles in courts, defied segregation, drew accusations of exploitation, and lived a life of seemingly breezy bachelorhood as publicly as possible.
But the same forces Hefner helped unleash would come to make his commercial empire seem passé.
While the magazine continued to publish celebrated writers, it dwindled in cultural relevance as competitors, like Hustler, became racier and, especially, as endless variants of porn available online.
The financial toll claimed Playboy’s resorts, clubs and record label, while the magazine scrambled for a compelling identity.
In 2015, Playboy announced it would no longer publish nude pictures, only to reverse itself early this year.
By the time Hefner died on Wednesday, he and his critics belonged to a bygone age.
In his waning years, Hefner was thought of less as a revolutionary and more for the spectacle of his May-December relationships with a succession of Playboy playmates.
Those who deemed him a purveyor of smut had long since been sublimated by the sexual revolution Hefner helped release.
And feminists, who were soldiers in the same sexual revolution as Hefner but who belittled him for placing men at its centre, had moved on to bigger targets that made Hefner look tame by comparison.
There was a time when these clashes riveted the country and made Hefner feel as though he were under siege.
“These chicks are our natural enemy,” he wrote in 1970, ordering a hit piece in his magazine on feminists.
“What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart. They are unalterably opposed to the romantic boy-girl society that Playboy promotes.”
His most famous bugbear was Gloria Steinem, who in 1963, as a freelance journalist, published a riveting account of her undercover stint as a Playboy bunny.
The two-part series depicted Playboy clubs, where ordinary men paid to mingle with bunnies, as frat pads, where women were wage-slaves for lewd and abusive customers.
Only in retrospect did the exposé seem like a boon to Steinem’s career. After A Bunny’s Tale was published, Steinem said: “I mostly got requests to go underground in some other semi-sexual way.”
Of Hefner, Steinem said, he wanted “to go down in history as a person of sophistication and glamour”.
But, she added, “the last person I would want to go down in history as is Hugh Hefner”.
The feminist onslaught continued with a 1970 debate with Hefner on The Dick Cavett Show, during which Susan Brownmiller lamented: “The role that you have selected for women is degrading to women, because you choose to see women as sex objects, not as full human beings. The day you’re willing to come out here with a cottontail attached to your rear end?”
Hefner smiled and shook his head.
Many remembrances ignored the darkest chapters of Hefner’s life.
The biggest of these came in 1984, when Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich published the book, The Killing of the Unicorn, a love letter to his late partner, Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten, and invective against the role Playboy supposedly had in her eventual murder.
On Stratten’s first night as a playmate, Bogdanovich claims, Hefner forced himself on her in his infamous jacuzzi grotto.
(Publishers removed the word “rape” under pressure from Hefner’s lawyers.)
Life in the Playboy dominion was fearful and exploitative for Stratten, Bogdanovich says, to the point that she married an abusive man for protection.
Her husband shot Stratten to death, then himself, in 1980.
“[Bogdanovich] buys the continuum between centrefolds and ax murders,” wrote Rolling Stone in 1986.
“The notion that when women are presented as passive receptacles of male sexual pleasure, anything can and will happen, that what trivialises women can kill them too.”
Hefner denied the accusation and reciprocated with allegations of his own. Amid an all-consuming media war, the original charges were soon forgotten.
More recently, in 2014, Chloe Goins, a model, claimed in a lawsuit that Bill Cosby drugged and raped her in 2008 and that the Playboy Mansion was the scene of the crime.
The lawsuit named Hefner as a conspirator and claims his properties were, in fact, the site of multiple of Cosby’s attacks on young women.
Cosby has denied all the criminal accusations against him and has only been charged for one alleged incident.
This summer, his trial ended in a hung jury. A retrial is expected next year.
“I would never tolerate this kind of behaviour, regardless of who was involved,” Hefner said in a statement, adding the mere thought of the allegations against Cosby, “a good friend”, was “truly saddening”.
Then came a tell-all memoir by Holly Madison, a former Playmate and reality television star by way of The Girls Next Door, a show that followed the exploits of Hefner’s live-in girlfriends, which aired for six seasons on E!.
The book portrayed Hefner as controlling, emotionally abusive, and an instigator of emotional drama between the women, who had a nine o’clock curfew and strict dress code.
Madison claimed that all Hefner’s girlfriends were expected to participate in group sex with him, and expected to perform sexual acts in front of him.
But on Thursday, other women associated with Playboy remembered nothing of the sort.
“RIP to the legendary Hugh Hefner!” Kim Kardashian West, who posed for the magazine in 2007, wrote.
“I’m so honoured to have been a part of the Playboy team! You will be greatly missed! Love you Hef! Xoxo.”— www.theguardian.com